Even the most casual observer of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid career will have noticed that the prolific forward has been struggling so far this season in La Liga. A return of one goal in five games is not the sort of statistic normally associated with the club’s record scorer, who has hit the net 413 times in 404 appearances since his 2009 transfer from Manchester United.
It also does not require a mathematics degree to work out that the Portuguese is worth more than a goal per game over the course of his time at the Bernabeu, but this season he’s registering one every 450 minutes in the league. Ronaldo required 28 shots before he finally got off the mark against Getafe in his fourth Liga appearance during which, on 28 minutes, his least productive start to a domestic campaign for Madrid was confirmed.
It remains premature to write Ronaldo off of course. He was in good form before being sent off in the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona, causing him to miss Real’s opening four league fixtures, and something similar happened last season when he was absent for three of his side’s first four games. He scored on his return from injury against Osasuna but then suffered a bout of influenza and missed the victory against Espanyol.
In his next three appearances Ronaldo failed to find the net and Real failed to win, dropping points in three consecutive draws against Villarreal, Las Palmas and Eibar.
The parallels with this season are evident and 2016-17 didn’t end too badly for Madrid or Ronaldo, who managed 25 Liga goals in 29 games and 12 in 13 in the Champions League.
Ronaldo has been making hay in Europe, but his four goals have come against Apoel and a Dortmund side that are a pale shadow of that which topped the group ahead of Madrid last season. This is not meant as a discourtesy. To paraphrase an old football cliche, you can only score against what’s put in front of you and Apoel and Dortmund proved willing to oblige.
The trouble for Zidane and Madrid is that when he has been presented with a half-decent defence, Ronaldo has been thwarted. That in turn has led to increasing frustration, meted out in equal measure on himself and his teammates when they have had the temerity to shoot instead of seeking out a shirt with the No. 7 on its back.
It seems incredible in such a self-confident player, but his body language suggests Ronaldo may be lacking belief. When he nearly smashed one of the heaters in the Bernabeu roof on Sunday there was no guttural howl to the heavens, just the raising of his eyes in submission to the turned back of the patron saint of direct free kicks.
There was also desperation. Ronaldo has missed several chances that normally would have gone in, particularly one against Getafe from two yards out in front of an unattended net. There was a suspicion of offside but also a wry smile on Ronaldo’s face that transmitted he knew full well he wasn’t.
Zidane’s insistence on rotations has been even greater this season and team performances have suffered as well as results. In Ronaldo’s case the absence of Karim Benzema is particularly damaging. Not only does the Frenchman possess a more intuitive understanding of Ronaldo’s movements, he has also proven himself less likely to shoot when he can find his strike partner than players with more youthful exuberance in their boots.
There are other possible reasons for Ronaldo’s despondency. Watching Leo Messi streak 10 goals ahead in the Pichichi stakes this early in the season, a gap that will be difficult to breach, will not appeal to Ronaldo’s dignity. Seeing his side five points behind Barcelona, a gap that can be closed over the course of 29 games, will have fired his competitive instinct. The downside of that is the harder something is pursued, the greater the distance can become for the pursuer. The 2017 FIFA The Best award winner is now playing catch-up.
Zidane needs to find a way to get Ronaldo back in the hunt